LRO stands for Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. It is a robotic spacecraft that is orbiting, or flying around, the moon. It is taking pictures and gathering information about the moon's surface. LRO launched in June 2009.
How Will LRO Study the Moon?
LRO has six different science instruments, including telescopes, sensors, lasers and detectors. These instruments will gather more information about the moon than NASA has ever known. The information about the moon's features and natural resources will be needed as NASA designs and builds a planned lunar outpost.
Part of LRO's goal is to find safe landing sites on the moon for future human missions. LRO will also look for natural resources that people living on the moon could use. The spacecraft will study radiation on the moon and how it might affect people.
LRO will help create maps of the entire lunar surface. It will search for ice and frost at the moon's poles. Water ice can be used for many things including rocket fuel. To search for water ice, the spacecraft will take pictures of shadowed areas of the moon that are lit only by starlight.
A telescope nicknamed CRaTER will measure the amount of radiation on the moon. Scientists will then be able to figure out how the radiation will affect people. The results could help NASA find ways to keep astronauts safe while on the moon.
Another instrument will measure the temperatures on the moon to find the best place for a human habitat.
LOLA is the nickname for another instrument. It will use a laser to gather data about the high and low points on the moon. NASA will use that information to create 3-D maps of the moon. The instrument will analyze the locations that are always dark, because ice may be hiding there. The information from LOLA will help determine safe landing sites for future spacecraft.
An instrument named LEND was made in Russia. It will study the moon's soil, which is called regolith. LEND data will be analyzed for evidence of water ice near the moon's surface.
A camera on LRO will take high-quality pictures to help identify landing sites and characterize the moon's landscape and composition.
These instruments are expected to give NASA the best information it has ever had about the moon.
When Did LRO Launch?
LRO launched from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida in June 2009 on an Atlas V (5) rocket. The trip to the moon took approximately four days. LRO is now orbiting the moon. During each orbit, the spacecraft flies over the moon's north and south poles. When a spacecraft takes this path, the orbit is called a polar orbit. The orbiter will fly approximately 31 miles, or 50 kilometers, above the moon's surface. LRO will orbit the moon for at least one year.
Why Is NASA Studying the Moon?
LRO is NASA's first step toward returning humans to the moon. NASA and scientists around the world want to study the moon to prepare to send astronauts there and to build a lunar outpost. Astronauts can explore the moon to learn more about the history of Earth, the solar system and the universe. Astronauts could also learn things on the moon that could benefit life on Earth.
Another reason to study the moon is to prepare to go to other places like Mars and beyond. By going to the moon first, NASA can test most of what will be needed for future missions to Mars and other places in the solar system. Preparing on the moon will increase the safety and success of those future missions.
What Is LCROSS?
The Lunar CRater Observation and Sensing Satellite, or LCROSS, launched with LRO. Shortly after launch, the two spacecraft separated. Both spacecraft flew to the moon on two separate paths.
LCROSS is made up of two stages. When it is time for LCROSS to work, it will fly close to the moon and the two stages will separate. The first stage will crash into the moon near one of its poles. The impact of the crash will cause a crater about one-third the size of a football field and as deep as the deep end of a swimming pool.
The impact will also cause an ejecta, or material, to fly out of the crater. Scientists are guessing that the amount of dust, ice and other materials that will fly out of the crater could fill 10 school buses.
The second stage will then fly through and analyze the materials. It will also crash into the moon, several miles away from the first crash. LCROSS will be looking for evidence of water. Water in the form of ice on the moon could be used by astronauts on the moon. The lunar water could provide resources like oxygen for astronauts to breathe and hydrogen, which could be used as rocket fuel.
LRO and LCROSS are part of NASA's Lunar Precursor Robotic Program. The program manages robotic missions that are pioneering the way back to the moon.
More About LRO
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A Flash of Insight: LCROSS Mission Update
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Heather R. Smith/NASA Educational Technology Services